Probably one of the biggest questions that’s asked of students or their parents is, “How much time should I practice?” My answers depend on the age of the student and what they will be working on. Typically I suggest anywhere between 15-25 minute of practice 5-7 days a week. My students fall into a several different categories.
- Young Beginner Suzuki Students (3-6 yrs old) – Because of the age and ability to stay focused, I suggest parents plan out several 5-10 min sessions over the course of the day (if possible) totaling 15 minutes for at least 5 days. Most of the activities these students work on are basic gross and fine motor skills during the first months of lessons. Most of a students' practice will be based on repetition and achieving a set amount of repetition. Therefore there will be times when practice is below 15 minutes. Understanding how to practice with your child is important, and with 15 minutes being the limit, you may not achieve everything within a single day. This is ok, and I often reassure parents on this fact. Also, they have to listen to their companion CD (which is time then the practice session). The CD is about 15 minutes of music.
- Older Beginning Suzuki Students (7-8 yrs old) – Because these students are a bit older, I generally give them a bit more to do in the beginning months of lessons. They typically are playing within the first week or 2 of lessons. Therefore, their practice sessions are more on the 25 minute side. With this amount of time sitting position/posture, right and left hand exercises, whatever musical piece they are working on can be accomplished within this time frame. As with the Young Suzuki student, many of these students will be assigned tasks with repetitions, so at times practice may be less then 25 minutes. They too have to listen regularly to their companion CD.
- Non-Suzuki Students (7-13 yrs old) – Typically my non-suzuki guitar students receive the same amount of information in the first lesson. The only difference is that I start working on note reading right away. Because note reading can be more difficult early on, I suggest they practice for 25 minutes a day for at least 5 days.
- Teen Students (13-18 yrs old)/Adult Students (18 yrs old+) - These students should be practicing 25 minutes a day. They are learning note reading skills along with learning several chords. All of these things need to be worked on over the course of the week.
It is important that students practice regularly and for the amount of time I tell them. Depending on what is going on in the lesson, sometimes the time seems a bit too long for what they are working on. Usually, I’d like to see the students review the concepts given to them several times during their practice session for their own benefit.
Organize Your Practice
For any student, it is important that the practice time be spent wisely. Most students practice for the time their teacher tells them, but waist their practice time when practicing. Here are several ways to help organize and use your time more efficiently while practicing. Each one of these points can be used no matter how new you are to the instrument or music.
- Set time limits – Give your self a limit to how long you work on a given exercise, piece of music, technical issue, etc. At first you’ll feel like it is difficult to get work done within the limit. However, throughout the week you’ll find your mind focuses more and you are able to work better with less time. Also most things being taught in beginning lessons do not need hours of practice. Many of the exercises I give to students or pieces to work on only need a few minutes per day. If you are practicing regularly, it will be reinforced over the course of the week. The first day you might not feel much progress, but as the week goes on the progress will show.
- Look for consistency right away – Working towards consistency in how you play will allow you to better perform in your lessons. If you can barely play through the piece at home, what makes you think it will happen in the lesson? Typically whatever goes on at home, expect at least a 15-20% drop in quality in a lesson. This is normal, which is why when you are practicing consistency needs to be worked on. To work on consistency, the first step is to see if you can do something (not always the whole piece) 3 times in a row.
- Plan out your practice sessions – With your teacher’s guidance, plan out and decide what you will work on and how. Following a plan and setting goals will allow you to accomplish your tasks easier and have a clearer understanding of what to accomplish.
- Don’t play all of your repertoire at once – Learning how to maintain your repertoire can go a long way into freeing up precious practice time.
- Stop Practicing – Sometimes taking a break is the best thing you can do for yourself. If you feel yourself becoming frustrated, angered or plain burnt out stopping and doing something else (either working on a different piece, or taking a short 15 minute break from playing) can do wonders.
Have A Plan
During the first lesson of every new student, I take time and talk to them. I want to find out what they’d like to ultimately accomplish on the guitar. This discussion, especially with older students and students who have previous playing experience, is extremely useful in knowing what I need to cover with the student.
As a student, make your intentions and goals clear. Speak with your teacher about exactly what you’d like to accomplishing. The important thing to remember is that these goals can change over time. Your teacher should have a clear idea as to how to develop your playing.
Keep A Practice and Lesson Log
As a new student, it is hard to remember everything that you teacher goes over with you in your lessons, this is typical. I tell my students that out of everything that I talk about and work on with them, they’ll remember about 50% once they go out the door. Then over the course of the week, they’ll only put in place 25%of the information. This has nothing to do with good or bad students, but rather just naturally what happens in lessons. Sometimes a lot of information is given within a single lesson. Many times this information is overwhelming to the student. Take time during the lesson, as the teacher is explaining a certain point, to write down key points for yourself. As you go home to practice, open up your book and read the notes you took. This will help refresh your memory, but also brings you back into the lesson. You’ll start remember what you and your teacher were talking about, thus remembering certain important points.
A practice log can help you monitor your progress over the course of the week/month/etc… This will help you make your practice more efficient. If you notice that you’ve been practicing a certain section for a few days the same way and there has been little to no progress, that usually means that something is missing. Don’t become frustrated, but rather ask yourself, “What am I missing?” If you cannot figure it out, bring the question to your teacher at the next lesson. Also, you’ll be able to see where most of your focus is, and if you practice sessions are unbalanced, you can work towards fixing that.
Balanced Practice Sessions
I always strive to keep a balanced practice session for myself, but for the beginning student it is of greater importance. While technique practice is often seen as a boring task for students to do, it is extremely important. For students who have either never played before, or students who are looking to rebuild or develop their technique, this is the first place you start. Ideally, students should spend about half of their practice time working on their technique. As a teacher, I provide my students with drills and exercises that they should be incorporating into their practice that target specific things that we are working on. These things are meant to develop the hand’s muscle memory of the correct technique. As the student becomes more comfortable with the technique, they can then apply it to pieces they are learning.
The rest of the practice session is used to practice your repertoire, whether it is learning a new piece, or working on an old one. While it may seem more fun to play through a bunch of pieces, picking a few pieces to focus on will allow you to develop your interpretation and performance abilities of the chosen repertoire. You can also use this time to start applying the new or changed technique to these pieces. I will go over with my students how they can practice to start incorporating certain techniques they have been working on. Addressing this as a teacher is extremely important because part of our job is showing the student how all the pieces fit together.
Follow Your Teachers Instructions
Trust in your teacher is extremely important. Whether you are a complete beginner or an experienced player who wants to develop their playing further or a self taught player who is looking for instruction you are going to a teacher to learn from them. If you are constantly questioning or doubting their ability or what they are giving you, you’ll make little progress. This can be anything from a disagreement of technique (trust me the teacher knows much more and sees the bigger picture) to how to practice and use your time.
While it takes time to build up absolute trust, it will never come if you aren’t following the instructions given to you. If your teacher tells you to do something during the week of practicing, do it. Even if you don’t 100% understand what you are working on or don’t think it will work. Do it anyway. Then see what happens after the week. If you still aren’t sure, go to your lesson and talk to them about it.
Ask Questions and Communicate
Communication between the student and teacher must happen. Discussion is key, even if it is just a clarification of a point. Going home confused or unsure will not help your week of practice. Some teachers will only work with you during your lesson time (IE – if you email or call them, they might not respond, or answer your question). However, I try my best to address things that may come up with a student over the course of the week. While I do have other things going on, typically I’ll answer emails in the evening when I know that I won’t be practicing, so it doesn’t take any time out of my day. I’d rather the student feel comfortable that they can come to me with an issue, then them not addressing their concerns and suddenly leave my studio. How can the teach help you if you don’t speak with them?
Listen To Music
I think this goes without question, but the only thing I’d like to add is to find recordings of the pieces that you are currently working on. For instance, if you are playing the Sarabande from Bach’s 1st Cello Suite, go out and find recordings. However, it is important that you just don’t listen to “YouTube” recordings, but find professionally produced and recording CDs of the piece. Also, look for cello recordings. Listen to the piece on the Cello, then listen to Guitar recordings. Then maybe try and find a Lute recording. Try and find similarities between the performances, and then notice the differences. Which recordings did you enjoy? Which ones didn’t you like? What was different between the Cello and the Guitar, or the Cello and Lute, or the Guitar and Lute? These things will be better inform you as you create your musical interpretation of a piece of music.
We aren’t using these recordings to learn how to play the piece, we have sheet music for that. Rather these recordings are allowing you to experience different musical interpretations. You get a look into what the performer thinks about that particular music and what was important to them. You are hearing the product of their hours of practice, and their education come through that recording. That doesn’t mean you have to agree or like what they are doing, but objectively think about what they bring to the table. Becoming more familiar with a piece of music will allow you to feel more comfortable communicating it either to yourself, your family, friends, an audience or your teacher.